WHAT IS HARISSA?
Imagine sitting down at an outdoor cafe in Marrakech, Tunis, or Tel Aviv. The air is perfumed with spice, and on the table in front of you sits a plate of something delicious, a glass of fresh mint tea, and a small jar of harissa.
Thick, vibrantly red, and lusciously textured, the piquant chile paste beckons you the way it has beckoned North African cooks for centuries.
Harissa has been at the center of Maghreb cuisine ever since New World explorers first introduced the Latin American pepper to Europe in the 16th century. (Scholars believe that chiles likely travelled to North Africa along with Spanish colonizers or roving spice traders.) With their beguiling flavor and easy adaptation to their new, sultry climate, Maghreb cooks quickly learned to love the chile pepper – particularly when pounded into an oil and spice-enriched paste that delivered fiery complexity to their food.
Today, harissa is a staple of Tunisian, Libyan, Algerian, and Moroccan cuisine. It is also revered in places like France and Israel, which are home to large populations of people from these countries.
In the United States, harissa is quickly gaining popularity as a flavorful alternative to condiments like ketchup, salsa, and sriracha, as well as a potent ingredient that amps the flavor of any dish it touches.
TRADITION MEETS ARTISANAL INNOVATION
Like Italians with tomato sauce, home cooks across North Africa and the Middle East are serious about their harissa. Each cook has his or her own special method for grinding the chiles and blending in oil, garlic, and spices. That’s why our harissa is bound to family tradition.
Our recipe is inspired by Ron’s mother Linor, who was similarly taught how to make it by her mother after their family immigrated from Morocco to Israel.
But even more than heritage, what really sets our harissa apart is its pure flavor and composition. We never allow unnecessary ingredients like red bell peppers or tomatoes to bulk up the mixture. And we carefully source every ingredient that ends up in our jars, from the sundried chiles, white wine vinegar, and oil, to the toasted spices, and garlic. Most importantly, we work in small batches, producing no more than 100 jars of harissa at a time to ensure consistent and delicious quality in every spoonful.
Harissa comes from the Arabic word "to break," which likely stems from the mashing of the chiles. We blend three different chile varieties into each batch of our harissa. We start with juicy, slightly sweet Big Jims and deeply flavorful Sandias, which bring gentle heat and acidity to the mix. Both of these hand-harvested, sundried versions of these peppers are sourced from the good folks at Sichler Farms Produce, a renowned chile farm run by 5th and 6th generation growers near San Antonio. To round things out, we also incorporate Mexican-grown guajillos, which add a subtle chocolatey smokiness.
Back in our kitchen, we plump the chiles in hot water then press them through a hand-cranked food mill (which we believe might be a nod to the French roots of Moroccan cuisine) to form a brick-red paste that is completely free of distracting pepper skin and seeds. Unlike many jarred harissas, ours is completely smooth while still being full of body and texture.
THE SPICES, GARLIC, AND OIL
So here is where things get really personal. How many spices should you use, and which ones? Which oil makes the best binder? How many cloves of garlic are too many? All harissa makers must answer these questions for themselves. Our motto is, let the chiles speak for themselves, incorporating just a few well-curated additions to enliven them and deepen their flavor.
On the spice front, we toast earthy cumin and citrusy coriander seeds until fragrant, then grind them up and blend them into the chile paste along with a drizzle of white wine vinegar. We think the promise of crunching down on the occasional nubby coriander seed is part of the pleasure of dipping into an NYSHUK Harissa jar.
As for the oil, Ron’s Moroccan grandmother, Rachel Corcos, drizzled richly-flavored argan oil into her harissa. His mother used either argan oil or peanut oil, which was more widely available in Israel. Today we favor mild, GMO-free canola oil, which provides a silky richness, without overpowering the chiles’ flavor. To finish, we soften fresh garlic in a little more oil until it turns mellow and sweet. Folded into the harissa, it offers a perfectly piquant undertone that brings the other ingredients together.
HOW TO USE HARISSA? (HINT: ON EVERYTHING!)
Harissa is a remarkably versatile condiment that can spice up anything from lamb kebabs to fried eggs. Growing up, Ron’s family used it all the time – as a dipping sauce for fried fish, in traditional mashed potato and ground beef dumplings called popletas, in Moroccan carrot salads and fresh tomato salads, and to flavor chickpea dishes.
At home, try stirring a spoonful of NYSHUK harissa into soup for an extra kick of heat, or dilute it with oil to create a fragrant dipping sauce for bread or pita. Drizzle a little over hummus, grain salads, or roasted root vegetables; add it to marinades for chicken, beef, fish, or tofu; slather it on sandwiches, or dollop some onto a burger for an unforgettable twist. Need more inspiration? Check out our recipes for spiced up tuna salad, roasted tomato soup, and spaghetti and meatballs.
"NYSHUK's harissa is dynamic with a subtle heat that gets balanced by the natural sweetness of the chilies. It is not technically meant to be eaten by the spoon, but you definitely will not regret it if you do."
- Chris E. Crowley | Serious Eats
At Daniel, we accented a dish of cedar wood-wrapped hamachi with NYSHUK's harissa and an eggplant and tahini emulsion. While not a traditional pairing, the harissa's deep, gently smoky flavor added incredible and unexpected dimensions to the dish.
- Eddy Leroux | Chef de Cuisine, Daniel | NYC
"Most bottled harissas are just intensely hot, but there's a rounded, roasted flavor to NYSHUK's version that is perfectly nuanced. One night we ran out during service, so we substituted some other store bought brand.
Customers noticed the difference and complained!"
Garett McMahan | Chef de Cuisine | Perilla, NYC
"Ron and Leetal's harissa is jammier, fruiter, and riper than any you've tasted before."
- Gabriella Gershenson | Wall Street Journal
As a professional cook, I have tasted other types of harissa and yours has an incomparable depth of flavor and a thick, velvety texture. I put it on almost everything now, honestly, it's addicting
- Rachel Nichols | chef @ The Smile | NYC
With the Mediterranean food craze sweeping the country, the Tunisian spice paste harissa might just become the next Sriracha - and NYSHUK's version is worthy of the designation.
- Kristin Donnelly | Zagat